DICK FRANCIS INTERVIEW - August 1997
|£100 price cuts weeks after release, months of
waiting for UK versions of games, shoddy, slow PAL conversions, higher prices than
anywhere in the world... seriously, why DOES Nintendo appear to hate Europeans so
much? Everyone moans about it, but no-one appears to have actually tried to find out why.
Until now. N64 despatched a fearless team of shadowy undercover agents to DEMAND ANSWERS,
and where better to start than at the top, with THE head man and popular horse-racing
novellist Dick Francis?
N64: So, Dick, why DOES Nintendo hate Europeans so much?
DF: Ha ha! I dont think they have any particular bent in that direction
N64: So why the high prices, six-month delays for games...
DF: I dont think theres a six-month gap between Japanese/US and PAL versions of games.
N64: Well, there is. Even allowing for the first batch of titles (which were bound to come out at least 9 months later simply because the machine hadnt been released here), most titles arrive between 4 and 6 months after their NTSC counterparts. Starfox and Blast Corps, say, have been out in Japan and the US for ages, yet were still waiting for the PAL versions.
DF: Well, any manufacturer looks after the biggest markets first. Its not just about time either, its about priorities. As for the prices, you have to remember that other territories dont have to pay VAT, which puts 17.5% straight on top, and that UK retail margins are among the highest in the world, far higher than Japn or the US.
N64: So heres an idea why dont Nintendo just not bother releasing PAL machines at all? Think about it superior grey imports already cost the same or less as official N64s, after the initial frenzy has died off. If there was no UK version, Dixons and Electronics Boutique and everyone else would sell the imported machines, as happens with many other consumer items, and the competition would bring the price down even further. Nintendo would still get to sell all the machines (more, in fact), but without the hassle and expense of maintaining big European offices, converting games to PAL and all the rest of it. Everyone would be happy.
DF: I just cant see that that would work. For a start, everyone would have to buy a step-down transformer, and I wouldnt recommend using one of those. The machines wouldnt be covered by any EEC regulations, they wouldnt be CE-marked, there wouldnt be guarantees...
N64: Thats not really accurate. Every importer we know offers guarantees with the machine. Step-down transformers only cost £20, and weve never heard of them causing any problems of any kind.
DF: Youve also got the service issue. We run the Nintendo Hotline, completely free of charge, for example. You simply wouldnt get the brand support we provide if you were buying import machines, it wouldnt exist.
N64: It could be argued that the brand support is lacking in certain areas anyway. Were thinking here of some of the inferior PAL conversions of top games, like Mario Kart and Wave Race...
DF: Well, saying theyre inferior is just a matter of personal opinion.
N64: No its not, theyre demonstrably inferior Mario Kart runs nearly 20% slower than the NTSC versions, Wave Race has those big black borders...
DF: Wave Race doesnt have big black borders.
N64: It does if youre playing the PAL version.
DF: Not on mine it doesnt.
DF: I certainly havent seen any big borders.
DF: I dont know enough about the technical side to explain it all properly. You need to talk to someone who knows about that kind of thing. Ill get someone to ring you. Bye.
The "I see no ships" angle wasnt one wed been expecting, but we carried on gamely. While we waited for THEs technical expert to call, we decided to try ringing someone whod demonstrated what COULD be done with PAL versions. Konamis ISS64 is the benchmark for conversions, running full-screen and (in fact) slightly faster than its Japanese counterpart, J-League Perfect Striker. We asked the companys Jon Sloan exactly how much trouble it was to do things properly.
"The situation varies from game to game, but as a ballpark figure Id say it takes about 3 to 4 months to do a full-screen PAL conversion. One of the factors you have to watch out for is that Japanese programming teams put phenomenal hours when a games near completion they actually sleep in dormitories at work, never leaving the building. What that means is that when they finally finish the Japanese version, they take a month off straight away, so its several weeks before you can even get started."
N64: And what about the economics of the situation?
JS: It certainly adds to the cost, but that can be offset a game like ISS 64, for example, is actually tweaked and improved while its being converted to PAL (the UK version actually runs FASTER than the original). What happens then is that the enhanced and altered PAL version is re-converted back to NTSC and sold in Japan as a special "Perfect Striker World Edition" [The original version of ISS featured club teams and was called "J-League Perfect Striker" in Japan Ed], which helps recoup the costs.
N64: But is it worth the effort? Apart from magazines and purists, though, does anyone actually care?
JS: It doesnt make much difference to the casual gamer, and since even the biggest-selling mags only reach about 10% of the total market, casual gamers are by far the majority. But it certainly helps with reviews Id say its worth up to 5% extra, and that can make the difference between an 88% review and a 93%.
N64: Which, as any student of games market economics will know, is all the difference in the world.
No sooner had we put the phone down on Jon than it rang again. Excitingly, it was a THE technical employee, who asked to be known only as "Mister N". We wasted no time.
N64: "Mister N", presumably as a Technical Employee, you know how much time it takes to convert a title to full-screen, full-speed PAL. Youve had plenty of time with all the releases so far why hasnt it happened?
MN: Well, its all a compromise between launch times and optimisations we do manage to do it some of the time, as with Shadows Of The Empire. With other titles, there sometimes just isnt the time Mario Kart was released well ahead of its original scheduling, for example.
N64: But still months after the NTSC one there was more than enough time to do a decent PAL job on it. Isnt it the case that something like Mario Kart would sell regardless of how poorly it was converted, whereas the likes of Shadows needed every edge it could get?
MN: I dont think its that cynical it depends a lot on where the games originally coded, too.
N64: And even if it wasnt full screen, couldnt the timings at least be kept the same? As it is, European gamers simply cant join in the same fun as everyone else in the world, because our lap times are completely different to theirs, and thats half the enjoyment of a game like Mario Kart.
MN: I dont know about that. Maybe we get the clock counting up in odd numbers or something.
MN: I do think its something thats important to the man in the street, though, and the whole issue is something thats being addressed. Lots of companies ARE optimising these days, and of course youve got the likes of Rare who originate their games here and make sure they run at the same speed everywhere.
N64: So why arent Nintendo doing it? Surely they should be setting the example?
MN: Ooh, is that the time?
All of which, ultimately, gets us no further forward than we started. The only conclusion we feel able to draw from the episode is that Nintendo are rather sitting on their laurels they know that their reputation will sell games like Mario 64, Wave Race, Pilotwings and Mazza Kart regardless of any technical shortcomings, so why bother going to the time and expense? Everyone else (especially as their games are even more expensive than the already-frightening Nintendo titles) has to try a bit harder, so they tend to do the job properly. Its a rotten state of affairs, but, unless youre prepared to buy an import machine and take your chances, you might as well get used to it.